Frequent Fliers’ Lament: U.S. Airlines are Second String

It isn’t just with automobiles that the U.S. public sees American companies as worse than their overseas counterparts. Our airline industry also comes in for its share of lumps.

Anyone who has ever heard horrific air travel stories from colleagues, friends or relatives – and that’s most of us – wouldn’t be surprised if consumer ratings of U.S. airlines pale in comparison to others. And now we have the record to prove it. SeatGuru, TripAdvisor’s online site that bills itself as “the ultimate source for airplane seating, in-flight amenities and airline information,” has just released the results from its most recent annual survey of frequent fliers (defined as people who have flown at least eight times in the past year).

And what does this year’s survey tell us? For starters, U.S. air carriers have the least comfortable seats of all airlines.

Also, they serve the worst food – if they serve it at all.

Rude flight attendants? Bottoms again.

Who ranks best? If you’re looking for good food, the survey respondents tell us we can’t go wrong with Singapore Airlines, British Airways or Air France. Perhaps surprisingly, Continental Airlines also ranked well. But avoid American, United and U.S. Airways – rated the worst of the bunch.

These same three U.S. carriers also scored at the bottom of the heap for the comfort of their economy-class seating. JetBlue does score well in this category; too bad most of us never get the chance to fly this airline because they serve precious few cities. (For the best business class seating, respondents gave highest marks to British Airways.)

And guess what? The very same three carriers – American, United and U.S. Airways – topped the list for having the nastiest flight attendants. If polite, friendly service is your thing, you’re far more likely to find that over at Singapore Airlines or Southwest.

What about the all-important performance metric of on-time flight arrivals? For that, we can look to actual data compiled by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics rather than rely on survey findings. What we see is that for the first three months of 2009, Hawaiian Airlines had the best on-time performance of any U.S. airline company, with more than 90% of its flights arriving within 15 minutes of schedule.

But they’re a small airline company. What about the biggest carriers? Southwest has performed the best, while Continental is at the opposite end of the scale.

And what flight to take if you want the dubious distinction of traveling the worst airline route of all? That would be Northwest Airlines Flight #5803 from Atlanta to Honolulu. It was late a mere 96% of the time. Well, there’s consistency for you at least!

As for getting yourself to your destination in one piece … may your pilot be Chesley B. ‘Sully’ Sullenberger.

Happy Travels!

9 thoughts on “Frequent Fliers’ Lament: U.S. Airlines are Second String

  1. Hey! The U.S. is still #1 … even if it is for BAD service!

    You wonder what effect all the labor unions have on the overall efficiency and effectiveness of air travel. When you combine strange work rules with a highly regulated industry, I wonder if the customers get lost in the middle?

    I agree with Oprah: It is really nice to have your own plane.

    • European carriers are also faced with unions and strange work rules, yet… Years ago passengers longed for US carriers when confronted with Lufthansa’s ex-shotput-star-flight-attendants – no longer! Some deregulation later in the life-cycle of an industry appears to be the ticket. No deregulation or early deregulation gave us the US carriers and their woes, as well as the US cellular network disaster.

  2. I just read your blog on USA airlines – very true. It pretty much applies to USA society though, as all of us who travel realize. Banking? Infrastructure (airports/public transport)? Electronic voting? E-filing taxes? (Dare I mention it – cars?) Education? Cell phone technology/coverage? Health care? Mortality rate? etc. etc. USA seriously lags compared to other developed, and in many cases developing, nations.

    At the same time, as the USA is so insulated and patriotic, people are more or less brainwashed to think that the USA is Number 1 in everything. I think some people in the USA (the smarter ones) are now slowly waking up to discover that the rest of the world has really moved on since the early 80’s – and at a very fast pace.

    The good thing now – I think Obama is the most realistic President the USA has had in long time, and I admire his honesty, integrity and his ambitions to get the country back on track. I have less confidence in “Joe American” unfortunately.

    I like your blogs, and I’d be interested to know how you see this. Where the USA was clearly leading the world in the 50’s and 60’s, the last 30 years are very very different in that respect. Maybe an interesting topic?

    • Interesting article in Prospect, thanks for posting. The problem with it is that it is a very statistical based approach that is the basis for stating that the USA and Europe are not that different. One can gather stats to support almost any viewpoint. Assuming all stats are true, for most cases the “wrong” things are measured. For example, church attendance figures, that are apparently similar between the USA and Europe. Does that figure really tell or measure how religious a country/region is? I don’t think it measures how in the USA religion is such a strong part of society. The attitude towards sex, the good vs evil thinking, the public confessions of private life – the USA and Europe are so different when it comes to this, and a lot is related to religion. This is just one example where the article goes wrong in my opinion.

      In general, I find Europeans and Americans very, very different in their approach to life. Mind you – I am not judging here and stating what is best. I’ve met great people and ***holes on both sides of the pond. I am just saying that statistics are not the answer to all – there are many intangible factors that have probably more impact on how one experiences a culture. But maybe that is a very European approach of me – Americans do like to measure units (look at sports, business, etc.) Which then proves my point, doesn’t it? 😉

  3. I came across a viral video on Facebook, and I know it’s done the rounds, and has even had a sequel written for it. But it illustrates perfectly how the public can get back in ways that were never available previously. This particular complaint was viewed by over 5.3 million people:

    That’s hard to ignore, no matter how big your company is. These days, YouTube videos are getting even more play with Twitter and Facebook. And the Facebook demographic is skewing older every day. I believe I read that the fastest growing demographic with Facebook is women age 45-55. The complaint box is leaving the control of the vendor, and being broadcasted by the consumer.

    • Yes, this is a famous video, Ben. To me, the part of the video that is the most damaging is the portrayal of the reaction of the airline’s employees to the customer complaints: complete and total indifference.

      Unfortunately, United isn’t even the biggest culprit in this realm — based on my own experience, that would be a different U.S. airline company that has just been (thankfully) absorbed by another one. Gee, I wonder what caused that to happen?

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